6 best literary adaptations

Films have always looked toward literature for inspiration, here are 6 of the best.

What with so many films and tv shows being based on popular works of film and television these days, and many more of those films being based on remakes of themselves, it seems no better a time to review some of the most defining literary adaptations in all of film.

6. Dr. No (1962)

OK, so while it may not be the most high-minded of adaptations, the first Bond film ever to be made deserves inclusion on the list if only for asserting a legacy that has endured for over half a century. As all good literary film adaptations must do, Dr. No captures the essence of its source material, distilling it into accessible visuals and dialogue and set pieces, thereby assuming ownership of Bond’s tropes by canonising them in the minds of generations of viewers. All the first and most classic Bond moments are here and, in some cases, they’re never better.

5. Fight Club (1999)

For as many jokes as you want to make about the less being said about Fight Club the better, David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel did more to cement the legitimacy of literary film adaptations, and Fincher’s reputation as a director (sorry Se7en), than any other film of the decade. Fincher’s interpretation is also one of the few that surpasses the quality of its source material, combining an atmosphere that is as once visceral and hallucinogenic, dimly-lit yet striking, with characters that are as sympathetic as they are untrustworthy. It also features Meatloaf in what is undeniably the role of his career, and first established the trend of beating up Jared Leto on film.

4. American Psycho (2000)

Speaking of which, Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel maintains a similarly nuanced understanding of its source material’s atmosphere and feel. The film manages to condense, and in some cases intensify, the book’s gratuitousness into a film that is harrowing, arresting, silly and intoxicating. That Harron manages to include both major interpretations of the novel’s plot as well without losing narrative credibility is to be commended and imitated.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Whew, 1962 was a good year for films. To Kill a Mockingbird represents an independent highlight of the Golden Age of cinema, as well as a masterclass on how to update literary source material to contemporary times. It also secured Gregory Peck’s reputation as one of the father-figures of Cinema’s Golden Age, his turn as Atticus Finch comprising exactly the sense of hardened sensitivity that made the novel’s character so beloved. That it came out the same year as Dr. No and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is only further evidence that they were dumping something special in the mains at Metro Gold that year.

2. The Big Sleep (1946)

Great literary adaptations justify a story’s existence in both literary and cinematic form, and none fully established the potboiler genre in mainstream vehicle for books and movies as effectively as The Big Sleep. Originally written by noir-laureate Raymond Chandler, with a screenplay adaptation by William FaulknerThe Big Sleep features all of the genre’s (and its actors’) conventions at their pinnacle. The film also boasts the honour of starring the infamous pair of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose relationship would become a center-piece of mid-20th century Hollywood. 

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

So obvious an inclusion that it almost negates the point of a list like this, Apocalypse Now is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, to say nothing of its place as the greatest literary adaptation ever made. The product of the closest thing towards “method-directing” ever observed, Apocalypse is a continually self-reflective examination of man’s journey into his own abyss. The film not only captures the novel’s emotion and effects, it updates them, absorbs them as their own, and offers a story that is at once wholly authentic to its source material and wholly independent to it as well.  That being said, Hearts of Darkness is still better.

Are there any literary adaptations you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

Discussion feed

Up next in movies